Five Live - It's Radio Bloke from the BBC

A member of Five Live's launch team worries that a station which started out as a news pioneer is becoming just a populist, lavishly funded competitor to commercial chat radio

When the new financial year begins in April, two long-running shows will disappear from BBC Radio Five Live. Euro News, first broadcast when the station was launched in 1994, will be abolished along with the weekend obituary show Brief Lives. Up to six journalists' jobs will go, but a BBC spokesman says "These cuts are unrelated to any overspend."

Unusually in a corporation groaning under a parsimonious licence fee settlement, that argument is broadly accepted by journalists. They perceive a bigger threat than budget trimming to the reputation of the award- winning news and sport network. "Five Live has undergone an internal revolution," says an insider "It is no longer a news station. Managers define it as 'sport and talk'."

One BBC producer says: "I can list correspondents who have not appeared on Five Live for a year. It is not on their radar. Many programmes have abandoned serious news."

Another journalist complains: "Listening to the banter that has replaced current affairs, it is hard to remember that it was launched by a former editor of the Today programme [Jenny Abramsky]. It has repositioned itself as entertainment."

The change has not been a ratings disaster. The station was a big loser in last October's Rajar figures - down 5 per cent to a weekly reach of 5.75 million listeners. But February's figures revealed improvement, with the audience rising to 5.85 million - below the peak of 6.65 million during the 2002 World Cup but still respectable. The breakfast pairing of presenters Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty proved particularly popular, adding 130,000 listeners.

But, as a member of the launch team that designed Five Live's programmes, appointed its presenters and recruited its journalists, I am alarmed by its strategic direction. The programming that made it intelligent is being abandoned in favour of relentless live broadcasting. Much of what is now categorised as news is really gossip. Accessible journalism has ceded ground to condescending populism.

Five Live controller Bob Shennan agrees much has changed: "When Five Live launched, it was the only rolling news service on the BBC. The development of rolling news on other outlets has forced us to evolve and that has had an impact on the threshold for news stories."

That understates the change. At launch, one key principle made Five Live a winner. "News priority" meant a reporter with a story had to offer it to the rolling channel first. The BBC wanted its baby to make an impact; news priority guaranteed it.

Now BBC correspondents must file a generic piece for all outlets and television takes priority. But Mr Shennan denies that losing news priority has reduced his station's credibility. He regards reluctance to interrupt discussion programmes with minor stories as a sign of maturity. He insists Five Live remains determined to pursue its founding ambition to broaden the BBC's news agenda by covering stories other outlets ignore.

"Our programmes cover many issues that are not on the BBC's news-gathering diary. That is why sport is so crucial: it brings in an audience that does not automatically listen to news. But Five Live has never been about handing down tablets of stone with 'news' written on them. It was launched to provide news relevant to the people it serves."

Mr Shennan accuses a previous generation of BBC journalists of importing a "straightforward corporate news mentality" to the network. "Five Live remains the home of news when something significant happens. Take 7/7: there has never been a finer example of continuous news coverage and the Five Live journalists who provided it are entitled to feel intensely proud. But from the early days, this station had a dilemma about what to transmit when there is no continuous breaking story. That's why there has been a shift towards programmes with a clear remit."

He is referring to shows like the listener-led morning phone-in, currently presented by former Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister, and the afternoon programme hosted by ex-Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo. Many BBC journalists regard these as incontrovertible evidence of the drift away from hard news. Mr Shennan defends the shows as outlets for "news that evolves from our close, democratic and informal relationship with our audience".

Loyalists cite as an example the case of Rick Costello, a terminal cancer sufferer who raised the issue of winter fuel payments for cancer patients on Five Live Breakfast. His story was widely picked up and he was soon debating the issue with the relevant minister. Others point to the attention drawn to the collapse of the Farepak Christmas hamper scheme by text messages to the Drivetime show.

Mr Shennan considers such user-generated stories excellent examples of a new philosophy. No longer content to tell its audience what to think, Five Live has chosen to listen instead. The approach raises profound questions about what public-service news provision now means, and though Five Live is boldly crawling towards a definition, there are obvious pitfalls.

It is not credible for a BBC executive to imply he has surrendered control over content. Distinguishing between popularity and populism is notoriously difficult and the corporation's entire editorial hierarchy exists to prevent mistakes. Unregulated user-generated news throws up minor horrors such as unsubstantiated rumour, and enormous ones like racism and the naming of alleged paedophiles. Five Live will not broadcast them.

What that leaves is a service which, far from being unique, partially replicates the tone of mass-market papers but lacks their killer instinct. To my ear, Five Live already sounds too much like neutered populism. I do not doubt it can attract listeners. My qualm is that it is pursuing a strategy that will render it indistinguishable from commercial chat radio. What will the new BBC Trust make of a station that sounds increasingly like the advertising-funded TalkSport (which recently broke Five Live's match-day monopoly on Premier League football)? A truly independent regulator would question the legitimacy of funding it from a universal licence fee.

The jibe that Five Live would become "Radio Bloke" infuriated the team who created it. Our aim was to make serious news accessible and create a station that sounded as if it were broadcast from an airship hovering above Britain - not from speech radio's traditional metropolitan territory.

Mr Shennan's cheerful populism is misguided. When Five Live moves to Salford Quays, as director-general Mark Thompson insists must happen, it will no longer be possible to pretend the station is part of the BBC News apparatus. Its present home in an obscure corner of the BBC newsroom will be demolished and correspondents who feel ignored by it now will willingly forget it completely.

There were not a few journalists at the station who hoped the licence fee cloud might have a silver lining. Their director -general had threatened to call off the Manchester move if the Chancellor did not meet his demands. Five Live journalists dared to hope he meant it. But Mr Thompson reviewed the costs and decided moving was cheaper than building new premises in London. That volte-face risks accelerating Five Live's decline from news pioneer to bounteously funded competitor for commercial chat radio.

Tim Luckhurst was an assistant editor at the launch of Five Live. He led the team that won the 1995 Sony Gold Award for Best Response to a News Event.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Professional Sales Trainee - B2B

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: First things first - for the av...

Recruitment Genius: Account Executive - Graduate / Entry Level

£22000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital advertising infras...

Guru Careers: PR Account Director / SAM

£50 - 60k (DOE) + Benefits & Bonus: Guru Careers: A PR Account Director / SAM ...

Guru Careers: Research Analyst / Business Insight Analyst

£32 - £37K + extensive benefits: Guru Careers: Research Analyst / Business Ins...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral